International Conservation Agenda in Flux amid Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions in place to prevent its spread have had a profound impact on the environment, in positive and negative ways: Greenhouse gases have declined sharply amid reduced industrial output. Commercial fishing and shipping vessels have remained in port, giving marine life a welcome respite. Conversely, food shortages, financial instability, and a decline in law enforcement activities have spurred a tragic surge in poaching and illegal fishing in developing countries. Meanwhile, restrictions on global travel and in-person gatherings have reduced the ability of governments and civil society to create, monitor, and enforce conservation measures. As the pandemic has progressed, global and regional conservation meetings have been canceled, postponed, or converted to virtual events. In some cases, such disruptions are adversely affecting species in acute peril.

Photo by Andrew Sutton
Photo by Andrew Sutton

The vaquita porpoise is one such species. The World Heritage Committee has yet to reschedule its June 2020 meeting where it was to discuss, among other important topics, the corrective measures Mexico must implement to save vaquita from extinction after the committee designated vaquita habitat to be “in danger” in 2019 (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2019). At its May 2020 virtual meeting, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) expressed “disappointment and frustration that, despite almost three decades of repeated warnings, the vaquita population hovers at the edge of extinction because of gillnet entanglement and ineffective fisheries management and enforcement measures in the Upper Gulf of California.”

Similarly, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was to consider a number of important compliance matters at its October 2020 meeting, including a decision on whether Japan must confiscate sei whale meat that was landed in Japan for 18 years in violation of the treaty (see AWI Quarterly, winter 2018). While the 2020 CITES Animals and Plants Committee meeting has been postponed until 2021, the October Standing Committee meeting remains in limbo. Nevertheless, the CITES secretariat has correctly observed that suspending action on compliance matters could have negative impacts on species conservation. This is especially concerning with respect to elephants, rhinos, grey parrots, and certain tropical hardwoods. 

In the long term, due to the inevitable financial fallout from COVID-19, many governments may be unable—or less inclined—to pay their membership fees to international and regional bodies that protect wildlife and their habitats. 

The IWC is a prime example. It recently conducted a mail-in vote to adopt an interim budget to sustain its work until the next meeting of parties, which has been postponed to September 2021. However, a significant number of its member governments already have unpaid annual fees and have thus lost their voting rights. With annual fees due again in 2021, some countries will accrue another year of debt before the next meeting, making it much harder to settle their arrears and restore their voting rights. 

Moreover, voluntary contributions by governments and nongovernmental organizations that sustain many global conservation initiatives may dry up, leaving important work unfunded. AWI is working with other NGOs to encourage governments and other stakeholders to maintain these donations to the IWC to sustain its important conservation and welfare work. 

Before the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations was calling 2020 “a ‘super year’ for the environment—a make or break year in which key international meetings will set the tone and agenda for environmental action in the decade ahead.” A number of critical conservation issues were to be discussed at the IUCN Conservation Congress (now rescheduled for January 2021). The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity were to negotiate a new global framework to safeguard all life on Earth. And at the second UN Ocean Conference, nations were poised to seek new solutions to ocean acidification; marine litter and pollution; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and the loss of habitats and biodiversity. 

As these and other key meetings are postponed or conducted virtually, and governments redirect funds and personnel to COVID-19 responses, it is critically important not to lose momentum for vital conservation work. For example, UN efforts to establish a Global Ocean Treaty (originally scheduled for April 2020) to conserve and properly manage the biodiversity of the high seas must continue. The high seas—international waters covering half the globe—include some of its most biologically important and critically threatened ecosystems, yet are among the least protected regions on the planet. 

Countries must not rely on the postponement of the UN Climate Change Conference from November 2020 to November 2021 as an excuse for not committing to stronger emission cuts to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. As the UN climate change executive secretary warns, “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.” Similarly, the pandemic cannot be an excuse for Arctic Council states to neglect their commitments to protect the Arctic environment and biodiversity, or for the 27 member states of the European Union failing to fulfil their legally binding commitment to improve the state of the EU’s ocean ecosystems pursuant to its Marine Strategy Framework Directive. 

Governments must ensure that the pandemic does not cause or excuse setbacks in meeting our critical priorities for the planet. In particular, when international negotiations resume, the meetings must be transparent and inclusive. Virtual meetings must provide simultaneous translation in multiple languages without time lags, ensure reliable connectivity, and be scheduled to maximize participation regardless of time zone. The United Nations has recently approved funding for eligible developing countries to boost their bandwidth in order to connect to virtual meetings, but it is inevitable that problems will occur. Limiting the duration of working sessions to accommodate global participation will inevitably result in less time for meaningful negotiations. And, while there are online options for informal conversation, a virtual format hinders the valuable in-person discussions that happen spontaneously during breaks in formal meetings—discussions that build trust and often help participants find consensus. 

Despite these challenges, there are significant benefits to a more virtual world, including the reduced impact on the environment by limiting air travel. As the world has adapted to teleworking, it is clear that we could have traveled less and “Zoomed” more, with minimal impact on productivity. When life returns to “normal” after COVID-19, we will all have learned some important lessons and hopefully adopted more sustainable working practices that were unimaginable less than a year ago.